Colorectal is the third most common cancer in the United States. In Kentucky, the health problem is particularly bad. Our state ranks first in the nation for colorectal cancer incidence and seventh in death, with more than 2,500 new cases and more than 800 deaths from this largely preventable disease each year.
The disease originates when healthy cells from the innermost layer of the colon or rectum change and grow uncontrollably, forming abnormal tissue growths called polyps. These growths are usually benign, but they can eventually become cancerous if they are not removed in time.
The main risk factors for developing colorectal cancer are associated with age, genetics and lifestyle. It affects both men and women, in most cases age 50 and older, and it often runs in the family health history. Additional factors that can increase the colorectal cancer risk are obesity, lack of exercise, smoking, high alcohol use and a diet high in red or processed meat and low in calcium, fruits and vegetables.
Colorectal cancer signs are often ignored because the disease starts with a few or even an absence of symptoms, usually painless, that may include:
▪ Change in bowel habits
▪ Recurrent abdominal pain or discomfort
▪ Rectal bleeding
▪ Weakness or fatigue
▪ Unintentional weight loss
There are ways to prevent colorectal cancer. Regular screenings, including but not limited to colonoscopies, are highly recommended for everyone starting at age 50, and at a younger age for people who are at high risk. Blacks should be screened at age 45 or younger if indicated. A colonoscopy can prevent this cancer by finding the pre-cancerous lesions/polyps, allowing the doctor to remove them before they become malignant and cause harm.
In addition, changing some of your lifestyle habits can help lower your risk of colorectal cancer, such as exercising regularly, opting for a diet rich in vitamins and calcium, quitting smoking and lowering alcohol consumption.
Colorectal cancer treatment depends on the stage of the cancer. Surgery is usually the first and only required treatment in early stages. However, in more advanced stages, when the disease has spread into nearby tissue and organs, chemotherapy before and/or after the surgery and targeted therapy drugs may be necessary.
Colorectal cancer is about 90 percent treatable when discovered in its earliest stages. While a colonoscopy may not be a fun experience, it could save your life.
Dr. Jitesh Patel is a colorectal surgeon at the University of Kentucky Markey Cancer Center.